Saturday, 11 April 2009

Japan in Paris

Of the many hundreds Japanese restaurants in Paris, only several hundred are authentic and run by Japanese people with Japanese chefs. Here are some of the best in all categories.

The French love Japan and so do I. For the past seven years, I have been studying Japanese and have a number of good Japanese friends with whom I converse. I also embellish my experience with my memberships in different Japanese clubs and with the Japanese Cultural Center in Paris.

There are a zillion Japanese restaurants in Paris but only about 120 of them are run by Japanese people and are therefore authentic. A good book to refer to is Itadakimasu (which means Bon Appetit) which lists and describes the authentic Japanese restaurants in Paris. Many of them are situated on the rue St. Anne between Opera and Palais Royale but there are a handful in every arrondissement. And I have been to many of them over the years.

My cantine is Edokko but that is because my friend, Kazumi-san, is the manager. The location is at Palais Royale at 164 rue St. Honoré. For the inexpensive price of 12 euros, you can get a plate of sushi or chirashi or sashimi, salad and soup. I would give the quality a B but what can you expect at this price? And the chefs are Japanese. Next door is Higuma which I LOVE. They have wonderful ramen of all sorts, and the Chinese food that the Japanese love like Chahan (Chinese fried rice with ham, peas, shrimp), tendon (fabulous dish of mixed tempura on rice with a sauce), toridon (teriyaki chicken on a bed of rice), yakiniku (grilled beef on a bed of rice) and yakisoba (noodles with pork and squid). This is the kind of place you will find all over Japan: cheap, hardy and delicious food at very low prices.

For sushi, I have a number of suggestions. Michi on the rue St Anne is terrific. It is a small place with a sushi bar on the ground floor and tables in the basement, and the sushi is excellent. My favorite place is Comme des Poissons in the 16th on rue de la Tour. There are only about 12 seats at the bar and that is close quarters. The sushi is spectacular. I had omakase there (chef's choice) and was in 7th heaven. The chef made me all sorts of concoctions with their special sauces so I didn't have to dip in the soy sauce or add wasabi. If you order the basic assortment, they will ask you if you want them to add wasabi to each sushi. (French people do not like this.)

La reine de la reine of sushi is Isame and everyone will attest to that. However, it is very expensive and the people are extremely unfriendly. Isame is located on the Ile St Louis. If you want a similar food experience (but with kind service) and don't mind travelling, Sushi Marche at metro Mirabeau is a fantastic alternative. For about 19 euros you can have an impressive array of sushi or sashimi. The staff is very friendly and warm. It is quite difficult to get to this place (20 rue Mirabeau) but it is worth the trip!

In the 14th on rue Pernety, you will find Kirakutei--another excellent sushi bar which serves other delicious dishes. The superior sushi is especially complete and delicious.

For tempura, I love Isse Tempura. It is on the rue de Richelieu not far from Palais Royale. Dinner is especially exciting with a number of menus featuring interesting Japanese dishes and an entire menu of a variety of tempura. Like in Japan, once the tempura is cooked, it is immediately served so you can revel in the crispness before it loses its crunch.

Shu is my favorite restaurant for tempura and kushiage--another form of lightly fried foods. The atmosphere is lovely. One is seated in a cellar with stone walls and wooden tables. Although expensive, the food is impeccably prepared and delicious. It brought to mind an exclusive sushi restaurant I discovered in Tokyo. The atmosphere is quite zen and the staff and chefs concentrate on their creations. It is only open for dinner.

For katei ryouri (home-cooked food), I recommend Nakamura and Chez Miki. Nakamura is in the 17th arrondissement on rue Troyon. It is run by a husband and wife team and there are just a few tables in the restaurant. You can choose from a lengthy menu including chawan mushi (a savory custard), a variety of salads and main dishes such as pork katsu or grilled mackerel. Reservations are a must as the restaurant is very small. Each dish is prepared with loving care. This place is a winner.

Chez Miki is also a lovely but too tiny restaurant off rue St. Anne. The lunch menu includes two appetizers, a main course, a lovely clear soup, and dessert for just 15 euros. Choose from mackerel sushi (spectacular), marinated sardines, katsu pork, several different preparations of salmon (fried, grilled, salmon head grilled with salt), bass, etc. etc. And there are two desserts to choose from. The problem with this restauarant is that it is quite tiny and fills up quickly, but it is definitely a terrific place to go for Japanese-style home-cooked food.

On New Year's Day, I went to the queen of I places: the exclusive Benkay at the Hotel Nikko on the Seine. On other days, it is the best place for a beautiful bento, or teppanyaki, or sushi. Everything is authentic Japanese including the high prices. The osechi ryouri (what the Japanese eat on New Year's Day) was spectacular and included lobster, gambas and other beautifully prepared vegetables including the compulsory for New Year's mochi. See my pictures of some of the dishes. The meal was very expensive but I think that for once in my life, it was worth it to try the best of the best.

Yen, on rue St. Benoit in the 6th arrondissement, is a wonderful Japanese restaurant featuring spectacular soba--a whole grain thin noodle served in broth or cold on wooden criss-crossed boxes. They also have many other wonderful authentic Japanese dishes including grilled eggplant with miso and a variety of grilled fishes. At lunch the menus include cold soba or soba in broth with tempura or with other choices of vegetables. The contemporary and minimalist decor is lovely and adds to the calmness of the environment. You will find many Japanese tourists who seek out this restaurant when they come from Japan.

Many Japanese people don't realize that the canteen, Naniwaya turns into an izakaya in the evenings. I would call this a spectacular Japanese tapas place. Cheap and delicious, this is the place to sample the best of Japanese cuisine: takoyaki (octopus dumplings), grilled duck breast, fried tofu (agedashi dofu), inari (rice in sweet tofu skins), a variety of donburi (different fish and meat concoctions on rice), spicy vegetables, steamed pumpkin, etc. etc. Naniwaya serves a basic ramen and inari menu at lunch but once 6pm rolls around, the kitchen opens up its creativity. This restaurant is one of the first you meet when you walk into the rue St. Anne.

Before closing, I must mention Kunitoraya--the home of udon in Paris. It is superb. However, you must completely disregard the atmosphere which is nonexistent. In its place are the sounds of people greedily slurping their magnificent udon. There are many choices of preparations of both hot udon in broth or cold udon to be doused with or dipped in a cold sauce. The udon is made inhouse and it is beyond comparison. Only in Takamatsu (the capital of udon in Japan) did I have udon that compares.The restaurant is open non-stop from noon until 10pm, and it is always crowded. After seven, there is a menu of Japanese specialties like agedashi dofu or baked eggplant or maki with plum paste. You can have tempura on rice at lunch and several donburi dishes then as well. I would give this place an "A" for food.